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Making Decisions With A Coin Toss

While it may be a nice way to choose who gets the last cupcake or which side of the field your team starts on, the coin flip can seem like a pretty flimsy way to make important decisions.

But, what do you do when you’ve gathered all the possible data and know all the possible facts? At some point, it becomes counter productive to spend additional time and money seeking additional insight.

As Seth Godin explains in his post today, “When there isn’t enough data, when there can’t be enough data, insist on the flip.”

What Seth doesn’t write – but is part of his current messaging – is that seeking additional data until the cows come home is a way to procrastinate. The problem isn’t so much lack of data, but fear of taking action.

Sometimes we hide behind ‘needing the facts’ so we can keep putting off what we don’t want to do.

Here’s a slightly shortened version of Seth’s post with more details…

Insist On The Coin Flip

Very often, we’re challenged to make decisions with too little information. Sometimes, there’s no information–merely noise. The question is: how will you decide?

Consider the challenge we faced when setting the pricing for a brand of software we were launching in 1986… Should these games cost $29, $34 or $39 each? My bosses and I had one day to finalize our decision for the salesforce.

…We had no graphs, no history, no data. We were the first in the category and there was just nothing significant to go on… We talked for an hour and then did the only intelligent thing–we flipped a coin. To be sure we had it right, we double checked and flipped two out of three. The only mistake we made was wasting an hour pontificating and arguing before we flipped.

This is also the way we should settle closely contested elections. We know the error rate for counting ballots is some percentage–say it’s .01%. Whenever the margin is less than the error rate, we should flip. Not waste months and millions in court, we should insist on the flip. Anything else is a waste of time and money.

Or consider the dilemma of the lucky high school student with five colleges to choose from… Once you’ve narrowed it down and all you’re left with is a hunch, once there are no data points to give you a rational way to pick, stop worrying. Stop analyzing. Don’t waste $4,000 and a month of anxiety visiting the schools again. The data you’ll collect (one lucky meeting, one good day of weather) is just not relevant to making an intelligent decision. Any non-fact based research is designed to help you feel better about your decision, not to help you make a more effective decision.

One last example: if you know from experience that checking job references in your industry gives you basically random results (some people exaggerate, some lie out of spite), then why are you checking?

When there isn’t enough data, when there can’t be enough data, insist on the flip.

By refusing to lie to yourself, by not telling yourself a fable to make the decision easier, you’ll understand quite clearly when you’re winging it.

Once you embrace this idea, it’s a lot easier not to second guess your decisions–and if you’re applying to college, you’ll free up enough time to write a novel before you even matriculate.

(From Seth Godin’s post “Insist On The Coin Flip” published 8 April 2011)

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